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Britain, Germany increase flight security after bomb scare

Germany suspends all passenger flights on Yemen's national airline and Britain bans unaccompanied air freight from Somalia and Yemen. Both countries were layover points for one of the two U.S.-bound flights involved in last week's bomb plot.

November 02, 2010|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from London — Britain and Germany stepped up their aviation security measures Monday to try to close gaps exposed by last week's airplane bomb scare.

Both countries were layover points for one of the two U.S.-bound aircraft from Yemen found to be carrying powerful explosives in booby-trapped computer printers. One of the bombs was intercepted in central England after the plane first stopped in Cologne, Germany.

The federal German aviation authority announced that it was immediately suspending all passenger flights to Germany on Yemenia Airways, the Yemen's national airline. Aviation officials in Germany had already banned all air freight from Yemen after the bombing plot, believed to be the handiwork of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, came to light.

In London, Home Secretary Theresa May said that, starting midnight Monday, Britain would bar all unaccompanied air freight from Somalia in addition to such cargo originating in Yemen. May told Parliament that widening the ban was necessary because of contacts between terrorist groups in Somalia and Yemen and because of inadequate security at the airport in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The United States has also stopped all cargo and mail shipments from Yemen.

For at least the next month, all printer toner cartridges weighing more than 1.1 pounds will be prohibited from passenger carry-on bags in Britain. Such cartridges will also be barred from cargo shipments entering or leaving the country unless the freight operators are on the government's list of approved agents.

May said all aspects of air-freight security were now under review, a reexamination that critics say is long overdue. Security analysts and members of the airline industry have warned for several years that cargo flights remained vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists.

The heightened security measures in Britain and Germany were unveiled as another parcel bomb plot surfaced in Europe, albeit one that authorities are not linking to Islamic terrorists.

Police in Athens seized a letter bomb addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy after a similar package bound for the Mexican Embassy exploded at a private courier company in the Greek capital, lightly injuring a worker. Two other parcel bombs intended for the Dutch and Belgian embassies were also intercepted.

Greek police arrested two men suspected of links to a domestic terrorism organization. The Mediterranean nation has been plagued by arson attacks and bombings carried out by anarchists and other radical groups.

In Britain, where the threat of a terrorist assault remains "severe," May said there was "no information that another attack of a similar nature by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is imminent."

But Yemen remains a major source of concern for Britain after its diplomats were the target of two assassination attempts in Sana, the Yemeni capital, in April and October.

In her statement to Parliament, May acknowledged that "it took a while" Friday before investigators, acting on an intelligence alert, were able to find the bomb, made of a plastic explosive that eludes detection on many security scanners. She and Prime Minister David Cameron were not notified of a discovery until nearly 12 hours after the plane was isolated at East Midlands Airport.

Mark Baillie, director of risk analysis for London-based security firm AKE, said that blacklisting cargo from certain countries would be helpful only to a point.

"You can cross off Yemen from your delivery list without any problem," he said, but what about air freight from a major economic power like Britain itself, which is grappling with homegrown terrorism?

"The problem is the next attack will come from somewhere [thought to be] completely safe," Baillie said.

Norman Shanks, an aviation security expert, said there was no way to immediately begin screening all cargo shipments. But nations such as Britain and the U.S. could help fund highly sensitive scanners and increased training for security personnel in countries such as Yemen that pose a bigger threat.

"We always react to the last problem," Shanks said. "We can't do everything overnight. We have to have a staggered approach that enables us to get the best systems into the places deemed to be of highest risk."

henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Anthee Carassava in Athens contributed to this report.

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